Howard athletes look to cryotherapy for sports injury recovery

As a 29-year-old father of four, Columbia native Brian Taylor’s athletic playing days are officially behind him.

He’s now perfectly content chasing down toddlers instead of quarterbacks.

Taylor, the former two-time Howard County Times Football Defensive Player of the Year while he was at Long Reach High School in the mid 2000s, still remembers what it was like to put his body through the wringer on a weekly basis. From his youth playing days, until finishing his football career at Division II Shepherd University in 2009, he sought out ways to speed up a recovery process that routinely required two to three days for his body to get back to 100 percent.

It’s taken nearly a decade, but Taylor believes he has finally found an answer for those in a similar position — cryotherapy.

In January, Taylor and his business partner, Patrick Reid, opened Revive Cryo Spa, a whole-body cryotherapy center in Ellicott City and, at the time, just the third cryotherapy facility in Maryland. The medical therapy method, which was first utilized in Japan in the late 1970s, involves standing in a minus-200-degree chamber for about three minutes.

They’ve since treated a wide range of people — from high school athletes to adults looking to increase their athletic shelf life — for a variety of reasons, including sports recovery, health and wellness and beauty and spa treatments.

“I’ve seen it on Real Housewives and like NCIS, things of that nature, and it always seemed affordable and doable by people in power,” Taylor said. “So, we wanted to bring it to the general public in Howard County.”

Ann Edwards, who holds a doctorate in physical therapy and has been a physical therapist for 15 years, expanded her practice about three weeks ago and changed its name to Restore Therapy, which includes massage therapy, NormaTec therapy and cryotherapy.

“A lot of the athletic population are benefiting because they can do their hard workouts, and then they can hop in cryo that night or the next day and then they get back to their hard work out again and not have to cut back for recovery,” Edwards said. “They can basically do more in their week as far as training than someone who is not doing cryo.”

Catching up

Phil Brusio, a 31-year-old from Baltimore, works out at CrossFit ReVamped sometimes as often as three times per day. It’s a competitive gym, Brusio said, and he struggles to recover at the same rate as his younger counterparts.

Early in the spring, the employees from Revive Cryo Spa brought a mobile cryotherapy unit to Brusio’s gym. He tried it once there and a few times afterward and felt refreshed after each use, so he bought a monthly membership.

After three weeks, he was hooked.

Now, Brusio said he tries to “freeze” daily at Revive Cryo Spa, located on Chevrolet Drive in Ellicott City. It’s one of seven cryotherapy locations in Maryland. Other treatment centers include CryoMaryland, in Cockeysville; Thrive CryoStudio, with locations in Annapolis and Rockville; CryoAnnapolis; Charm City Integrative Health, in Baltimore; and Restore Therapy, in Westminster.

Revive Cryo Spa typically starts all clients on an introductory pack of two sessions for $79, but also offers five sessions for $225 and 10 for $400. Taylor said the most popular option is a $200 monthly recurring membership, which allows customers to do cryotherapy once per day within that month. He said Revive Cryo Spa currently has 18 to 20 monthly subscribers.

During treatment, employees are required to take the blood pressure of first-time users, who then remove most of their clothing. Clothing is optional for women, but men must wear underwear or shorts. They’re also given gloves and slippers to help prevent against frostbite on fingers and toes.

During a routine treatment in October, Brusio opted to enter the chamber in basketball shorts for his three-minute session.

Using liquid nitrogen, which turns to gas when exposed to the air, the temperature in the chamber decreased to 240 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In response, Brusio’s body temperature cooled to about 32 degrees while his core temperature started to increase. He was going into what Taylor calls “survival mode.”

“Your core temperature increases, your metabolism is picking up and the blood does loops between your heart, your internal organs and your brain,” Taylor said. “Every time it’s doing a loop, it’s picking up nutrients, enzymes and oxygen. It’s the body’s way of trying to stay alive as long as possible and keeping the key components up and running.”

Taylor equates the process to what would happen if someone fell into a freezing pond. Upon resuscitation, the person wouldn’t have internal damage because the body was fighting to stay alive, Taylor said.

Brusio felt upbeat walking out of the chamber and said the “buzz” he felt typically lasts for a few hours. Taylor describes this as the “natural high” or “endorphin rush” patients experience upon walking out of the chamber. Blood flushes the body, repairing muscles and joints while leaving them feeling rejuvenated.

In the past, Brusio took ice baths and received massages to help his body recover from workouts. He has a Marc Pro electrical muscle stimulation machine at home, so he’ll still sporadically use that to combat lactic acid buildup. He said he also makes sure to sleep and stretch more when necessary.

But with cryotherapy, he can reap many of the same benefits in just three minutes per day.

“I’m pretty hell-bent on things being as efficient as possible, so that’s like the biggest thing for me,” Brusio said. “I can go in there and come out, and if I have lactic [acid], especially in my hamstrings or something, there’s an absolute noticeable difference before I walked in there as opposed to when I walked out three minutes later. No doubt.”

Getting ahead

Centennial High student athlete McKenna Griffin was one of the top girls soccer players in Howard County last year, earning second-team all-county honors as a sophomore despite dealing with a foot injury most of the season.

She was hoping to build on that success but was again dealing with injuries leading up to the start of the 2017 campaign. She experienced nagging soft tissue issues in her ankle and feet that ice didn’t always provide relief for.

In early September, her father, Ken Griffin, learned about cryotherapy while talking to Matt Bilger, another soccer dad, about their own injuries. Bilger, the director of tennis at Hillendale Country Club in Phoenix, recommended Griffin try it to reduce his golf-related pain. Griffin immediately thought of his daughter.

Soon after, McKenna Griffin and her teammates — goalkeepers Courtney McVicker and Bilger’s daughter, Ashley — were all receiving treatment at Revive Cryo Spa in an attempt to enhance their on-field performance.

“It’s hard to start off your season with injuries, and then the cryotherapy really helps because I could jump right back into the game,” McKenna Griffin said. “I knew that I could play with other people who were maybe more fit than me.”

She felt revitalized after cryotherapy treatment, which she relates to opening a freezer, and said her nagging pain subsided almost immediately after starting the treatment. She eventually took two to three sessions per week, usually the day before a game.

Ken Griffin said he noticed his daughter was “far more aggressive” on the field after starting treatment. He noted how cryotherapy reduces the amount of lactic acid, which is especially helpful for young soccer players.

“These kids are exposed to these tournaments where they play three or four games in two straight days,” Griffin said. “And by the third or fourth game, their legs are dead.”

Cryotherapy has also started to gain traction in college sports. This fall, Taylor treated 36 girls from Duke University’s women’s lacrosse team during a weekend trip to Maryland in mid-October. While there, they told Taylor that the Blue Devils used cryotherapy to treat their football players.

Taylor encourages cryotherapy use at all levels.

“It allows them to go out and compete top-level back-to-back days,” Taylor said. “It allows them to recover quicker, which allows them to compete harder, practice harder and be at their ‘A’ game every day.”

But some in the medical community aren’t sold on the process. Louis Kovacs, a sports medicine physician at MedStar Health’s Arnold Palmer SportsHealth Center, said cryotherapy, while popular, is not scientifically proven to offer benefits to users. Kovacs said that because of the lack of evidence to show the benefits of cryotherapy, he does not recommend it to patients as a way to help with recovery after a tough workout.

Instead, Kovacs recommends athletes eat a balanced diet, engage in an active cooldown after a workout and give themselves adequate rest time to allow the body to recover.

“Soreness is the body telling you that [exercise] was a little bit too much,” Kovacs said. “Mitigating it with some of these unproven methods isn’t necessarily healthy.”

Staying fit

Other athletes have used cryotherapy to help manage the stress of competition. Jeff Muneses, 53, tracks his heart rate during tennis matches. Some points are more stressful for him than others, and that’s when he finds his heart rate tends to spike.

Shortly after Muneses started cryotherapy six months ago, he said he began to notice a change in his stress levels. In the past, his heart rate would reach a certain number and hover there between points. Now, his heart rate decreases during that time. His body has learned how to better manage stress, he said.

To Muneses, this is one of two all-encompassing benefits of cryotherapy and a reason he goes to Revive Cyro Spa two to three times per week.

“What most people do is they have a stressful situation, they don’t teach it to come back down, and so they live with this low-grade stress throughout their entire day. And then when it’s time for bed, they wonder why they can’t fall asleep,” said Muneses, a chiropractor who runs his own clinic in Ellicott City. “So if you teach the behavior of stress management, meaning cryotherapy — extreme cold, body reacts with a stress, you get out, the body manages the stress — you teach that cyclical behavior. Then when stress hits in daily routine, your body manages it a lot better.”

The other word Muneses mentions when talking about cryotherapy is inflammation, or the body’s attempt to heal itself. In doing so, it can cause soreness, redness and swelling.

While injuries cause inflammation, Muneses said everyone has a chronic inflammatory state that increases with age. Muneses said he likes to be “extremely physical,” but can only do so by limiting the aches and pains that come with training at a high level. Unlike anti-inflammatory drugs, cryotherapy provides a natural remedy, Muneses said.

Taylor said there are health issues other than sports injuries that are treated by cryotherapy, including cellulite reduction, weight loss, anxiety and depression, skin blemishes and insomina.

“It’s kind of a catch-all alternative therapy,” Taylor said.

Reid and Taylor plan to open their second facility in December, on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore. It will occupy a room in the SEYA Wellness Center, which will include a sauna, yoga studio and weightlifting room and offer other treatments such as acupuncture and physical therapy.

After that, Taylor hopes to add two to four members per month while opening one or two more stores per year, further extending the reach of cryotherapy to more people.

“Ninety percent of the population has no idea what cryotherapy is,” Taylor said, “so it’s more teaching, it’s sharing that knowledge of what cryo is and what it does for people.”

Reporter Kate Magill contributed to this story.

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